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Azerbaijan: Aliev's Withdrawal Marks End Of Political Era

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Azerbaijan's ailing leader Heydar Aliyev yesterday officially withdrew from this month's presidential election in favor of his son Ilham. In a message sent from the U.S. hospital where he is undergoing medical treatment, Heydar Aliyev called upon Azerbaijanis to cast their ballots for his "political heir." He also expressed confidence he would soon recover and return to Azerbaijan. RFE/RL discusses the announcement's impact with two independent Azerbaijani political experts.

Prague, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "I am withdrawing my candidacy in favor of Ilham Aliev. My dear fellow countrymen, I am asking you to lend your support to my political heir."

With these words, read yesterday by an anchorman on national television, 80-year-old Heydar Aliyev bowed out of Azerbaijan's political arena after ruling over the country for more than 30 years.

Ilham Aliyev has long been groomed to succeed his father in presidential elections on 15 October, and the elder Aliev's announcement came as a surprise to few.

Heydar Aliyev has largely been out of the public eye since collapsing twice in April during a public speaking engagement. His withdrawal from the presidential race has been expected since leaving Azerbaijan in early July to undergo medical treatment, first in Turkey and then in the United States.

Azerbaijani political analyst Nazim Imanov, a former lawmaker, tells RFE/RL that Heydar Aliev's decision to bow out of the race marks a milestone in the tormented history of the South Caucasus nation.

"There was no surprise [in Heydar Aliev's announcement]; everybody was expecting it. However, this is an event that is of cardinal importance for Azerbaijan. What it means in fact is that the era of a man who, in one form or another, has ruled over this country for 35 years -- be it as first secretary of Azerbaijan's Communist Party Central Committee, or as president of [independent] Azerbaijan -- is coming to an end," Imanov said. "Even during those years when Aliyev was not in power, he, to a certain extent, managed to keep many levers of power in his hands. Many people who held positions of responsibility at that time were in fact controlled by Aliev. One can therefore say that an immense page of our history is being turned. It is a rather troubled period of our history that ended yesterday because whatever happens during the election, however things develop, one thing is clear: in 2003, Azerbaijan will get a new president. Whoever it is, it will not be Heydar Aliyev and that substantially changes Azerbaijan's political landscape."

Azerbaijan's presidential administration chief Ramiz Mehdiev yesterday told reporters that leaders of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party will nominate 41-year-old Ilham Aliyev as its candidate on 5 October.

Up until yesterday, Heydar Aliyev was the sole candidate of the ruling party. Ilham Aliev, who is Yeni Azerbaycan's first deputy chairman, was officially nominated last June by a group of residents from the autonomous exclave of Nahcivan, the traditional fiefdom of the Aliyev family.

In the comments issued by Heydar Aliyev from the Cleveland clinic where he is being hospitalized for heart troubles, the Azerbaijani president praised his son as an able political successor: "[Ilham Aliev] is highly educated; he is full of energy; he has initiative and a pragmatic mindset; and he is well versed in modern international politics and economy. I believe in him as I believe in myself and I have great hopes for him in the future."

Apart from being one of the ruling party's top leaders, Ilham Aliyev is the first deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's National Oil Company and chairs the National Olympic Committee. In early August, Azerbaijan's Milli Meclis, or parliament, elected him prime minister at his father's request.

Although Heydar Aliyev has long laid the groundwork for his son's rise to power, many in Azerbaijan argue that Ilham Aliyev lacks both his father's charisma and political skills. Yeni Azerbaycan sought to put off as long as possible any announcement about who it would put forward for the election so that the younger Aliyev would not appear isolated in front of the opposition.

But Baku-based political expert Rasim Musabeyov says the announcement of Heydar's Aliev's withdrawal was becoming a matter of urgency.

"Heydar Aliyev has almost not participated at all in the election campaign. And from the very beginning, it has been clear that keeping him on the list of presidential candidates was an attempt by the current regime at taking the best possible advantage of the head of state's charisma [for his son's benefit]. But eventually they had to make a decision and cross him off the list of candidates. Under the existing laws, election ballots have to be printed soon. For the ruling party, putting forward two candidates not only sounded like a joke, it was also dangerous because opinion polls show that a substantial part of the population was ready to vote for Heydar Aliyev even though no one knows whether he is alive or dead," Musabeyov said.

In his farewell message, Heydar Aliyev said he hoped to recover soon and return to Baku. This appeared to contradict earlier statements by his aides and Ilham Aliyev that the president was feeling well and that his return was just a matter of days. Meeting with supporters in the city of Shemakha today, Ilham Aliyev appeared to confirm his father's health troubles were the main reason for his stepping down.

Regional experts say Heydar Aliev's statement indicates the head of state will not return to Baku before 15 October -- something that may have a negative impact on Ilham Aliev's voter rating. Political analyst Musabeyov says, "[The ruling elite] had the resources necessary to obtain a more or less decent result. But the very stupid way with which they handled the election campaign and the shameless lies they kept uttering -- saying Heydar Aliyev was well and would reappear anytime soon -- may, I think, backfire. Therefore, I believe, that very potential Ilham Aliyev could have made the most of during the election, by scoring fairly well, may rapidly deteriorate within the next 10 days or so that are left before the polls. Under these circumstances -- and given the fact that Ilham Aliyev does not have a good political image among the conservative part of the population that traditionally used to vote for Heydar Aliyev -- these voters may deny him their support. The results may even be catastrophic for Ilham Aliev. I mean the actual results, not those that will be [officially published]."

Citing previous elections, Azerbaijani opposition leaders and political experts suspect the Aliyev regime may falsify the results of the polls to ensure a swift victory. Azerbaijani authorities have denied any such plan, promising free and fair elections -- a pledge that has been tarnished, among other things, by attacks against independent media and disproportionate financial resources allotted to Ilham Aliev's campaign.

Be that as it may, Heydar Aliev's opponents today welcomed his decision not to run for president. Etibar Mammadov, the chairman of Azerbaijan's National Independence Party, said the move would help the cause of the opposition.

"Since Heydar Aliyev left the country, a lot of his supporters have revised their positions. And now there is no force that Ilham Aliyev can rely on," Mammadov said.

Another looming problem for the younger Aliyev will be consolidating his power base among the ruling elite. Although he has received the public support of nearly all government officials, Ilham Aliyev is said to have many opponents within the country's top leadership.

Musabeyov says what is commonly referred to in Azerbaijan as the "ruling clan" is unlikely to split before the polls. However, he says Heydar Aliev's withdrawal from the political arena may have dramatic consequences for his son after the election.

"There will be no schism before the elections and the situation will depend a lot on the actual number of votes Ilham Aliyev will garner. If it is 30 or 40 percent, I think the ruling elite will strive to maintain its cohesiveness. But if it is 10 percent, then without doubt the members of the ruling elite will begin to quarrel among themselves, especially if we take into account the fact that Ilham Aliyev totally lacks [his father's] charisma and that his presence at the top of the power [pyramid] will be both a burden and a threat to them," Musabeyov said.

Nazim Imanov agrees that a split within the ruling elite is unlikely to happen before 15 October, if only for two basic reasons.

"There are already some serious flaws among the ruling clan. But I think that, at least until the election, these differences among the ruling party will wait before bursting into the open. Among other things, it is in the vital interest of these people to remain together because they understand perfectly that, should a regime change occur, they would have to account for the gross financial violations that have occurred in the past, for the unsolved problems of Azerbaijan, for the deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh and for the fact that Azerbaijan is no closer to a solution on this issue now than it was 10 years ago," Imanov said. "This is why they cling to power and use all feasible and infeasible methods to retain it. [Another reason] is that apart from Ilham Aliev, there is no candidate who could lead the ruling party to victory. So, one way or another, they will support him and a serious split that could profit the opposition is, I think, unlikely to happen."

If there is a schism after the elections, Imanov says, it may first reveal itself in the sidelining of a number of government officials. He adds: "There are already indications that Ilham Aliyev does not wish to work with some of them."

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)